Playwright Steven Dietz offers a mental Rubik's Cube in Fiction
Memory deceives. The written word tries to encapsulate memory, but it, too, deceives — and sometimes it deceives deliberately. And so does playwright Steven Dietz. His plotting for Fiction is cunning, and the layers of complexity he builds around the basic concepts of truth and fiction are even more so. We hear of a novel that contains truth, but it isn't actually the author's truth; of a memoir that's nothing but self-serving fiction; of diaries that are sometimes pure fancy and sometimes soul-wrenching fact. Watching the play feels like twisting a Rubik's cube or playing with a nest of Russian dolls.
In the first scene, two people meet, argue and flirt in a Paris cafe. They seem entirely familiar with each other; their argument, though heightened and intensely clever, still has the comfortable, teasing, accustomed rhythms you expect of a conversation between lovers. But in the second scene, we learn that this was actually the first meeting of now long-married writers Michael and Linda Waterman...or rather — and it takes you a little longer to figure this out — the first meeting as Michael recorded it. Now Michael is the kind of blockbuster novelist his younger self scorned, while Linda has never been able to repeat the success of her first novel, At the Cape, famed not only for its writing, but for its tragic autobiographical elements.
Linda discovers that she has a fatal brain tumor and no more than three weeks to live, and she has one request: She wants Michael to read her journal after her death. In return, she'd like to read his. Pretty soon she's curled up, scanning pages. Michael's story begins with a visit to a well-known writers' colony. Since at this point he's published nothing, Linda, who's already established, has gained him admittance. Reading, Linda believes she can easily re-create Michael's experiences. She knows him so well that a single phrase evokes an entire sequence of events. So even as Michael's stay at the colony begins unfolding on the stage in front of us, we're not sure whether what we're seeing reflects what he wrote or what Linda feels about what he's written.
During his stay, Michael became infatuated with Abby, the colony's enigmatic administrator. Once she's realized this, after some grieving Linda is able to forgive him. But reading on, she discovers Abby on page after page of every single journal, and she's devastated. When she confronts Michael, he admits to a one-month affair, no more. Everything else, he says, he made up. And then Abby herself appears at the door; she has come to see not Michael, but Linda. As if all this weren't enough, it turns out that Linda's illness was misdiagnosed — an "oncological misapprehension" — and now instead of dying tidily in three weeks, she'll have to live with all her aching uncertainties. But web-spinner Dietz isn't done with us yet.
I'd seen Fiction before, and I came away thinking it was a brilliantly entertaining piece, but one with more focus on words, ideas and plotting than on warm, breathing people. Michael and Linda were fascinating to watch, but I felt that you wouldn't really want to know them; while it'd be a coup to get the couple at your dinner party, they'd be the kind of guests whose self-conscious wit would silence everyone else. But with this Miners Alley Playhouse production, director Richard H. Pegg — working perhaps against the script — has cast two actors of such warmth and appeal that you can't help empathizing with them. Rhonda Brown's Linda can be arrogant and imperial, but also charmingly high-spirited and deeply vulnerable. And Thomas Borrillo makes Michael as concerned and caring as he is smart. The two express their love for each other in innumerable small gestures. It's Abby, well-played by Kate Avallone, who's contained and fairly emotionless throughout — that is, until her own painful secret comes to light. And click goes the Rubik's cube.
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